THE LURKER ARRIVES
Toler rolled onto his back and the agony returned. Eyes, nose, throat and lungs burning. Limbs unresponsive. He was still alive, but wished he wasn’t. He opened his eyes to find the palace courtyard dark. The sky had gone, replaced with a deep purple and magenta layer of smoke that continued to rush from the palace, spiralling up and blossoming out at the top. A few wisps lingered at ground level but most had risen to form a blanket over the city. The only sky visible was a cobalt ribbon, sandwiched between the palace walls at the bottom and the purple smoke above.
There were people nearby, running over. The first of them that reached him began tying a piece of fabric over his nose and mouth. He tried to move a hand to knock it away but was unable.
He blinked to clear his vision. They were magi and Association men, and they were trying to get him to his feet. They had cloth masks on too, presumably to protect them from the purple smoke.
They were saving him.
Then they stopped lifting, and for a moment Toler was suspended. One of the men said something and Toler was lowered back to the ground. What was going on? He was disorientated and sick, but his head was clearing. His job wasn’t over yet. There was poison leaking into Perseopia, seeping towards Fione and his girls. They needed him. He tensed his neck muscles and, fighting the pain, raised his head.
The men around him were staring at something up near the palace. A blurry figure by the entrance, at the top of the steps. Toler
willed his eyes to focus, but they wouldn’t. He tried squinting, but the exertion hurt and did nothing to improve his sight.
The figure slowly descended the stairs.
Toler would have to wait until it got closer to see it properly. He laid his head back against the flagstones and rested his eyes. He gulped to clear the saliva pooling in his mouth and grimaced as his raw throat constricted.
Toler could feel an anomaly in the atmosphere around him. Something changed. He could feel the Association men’s fear, too. Waves of it rolling off them.
He raised his head again and opened his eyes.
The figure had almost reached the bottom of the steps. A huge man, dressed in black. Toler blinked. No, not dressed in black. It was his skin; shiny black with a green and purple sheen like a beetle’s shell. Each limb thick and muscular, his neck like a bull’s. Small pockets of air rippled around him as he moved, as if he were moving through a viscose but transparent liquid.
The Association men remained rooted where they stood. None of them knew what to do. Not the General, not even the magi.
They all flinched as a second set of arms unfolded from the creature’s back. These were not thick like the forearms but slender and long, joined to its back at the shoulder blades. They rose up and hung above its head like twin scorpion tails with long, skeletal fingers.
The creature stopped, finally close enough for Toler to get a good look, and to experience the paralysing fear that had overcome everyone else.
The creature’s head had no muscle or cartilage and existed almost entirely as skull, covered in a thin layer of skin, pulled tight over it, with no eyes, just empty sockets. Its body was muscular and lean like a greyhound’s, with a narrow waist that cut in under the ribcage, almost to the back bone, as if it had no internal organs.
“Greetings,” said the creature, its voice deep and powerful.
One of the men cleared his throat. “Who are you?” he asked, his voice uneven and shaky.
The creature surveyed the palace courtyard with its empty eye sockets. “Ramaask,” it said, no emotion showing on its skull head. “Which city is this?”
“Aratta.” The same man.
“Aratta,” Ramaask repeated. “Excellent. From this day forth, Aratta is my home. And you …” He swept an arm over the congregated men. “You are my servants.”
There was silence.
Finally a magus spoke. It was Nasser. “And if we don’t wish to serve you?”
“Then you may leave.”
An Association man drew his sword.
“Hostility?” Ramaask asked.
“Sheath your sword,” Nasser shouted. But the man ignored him. He remained as he was, sword trembling in his hands.
Toler could do nothing but watch.
“You should listen to your master,” Ramaask said. “Leave this place as I have requested.”
“What happens if we decide to take our city back?” the man shouted, trembling as he did so.
“I will punish you.”
The man rushed Ramaask.
Ramaask didn’t move as the man flew at him. Only when the man lunged did Ramaask react. With godly speed, he caught the weapon by the blade in one hand, stopping it dead. The man panicked and pulled at his sword, but it didn’t budge.
Ramaask yanked the blade up, dislocating the man’s arm with a pop. The man whimpered and fell to his knees, cradling his lame arm.
Ramaask turned the sword over in his hands. “Is this what passes for a human weapon?”
The man tried to get up while still cradling his arm but, before he’d reached his feet, Ramaask swung the sword. It sliced into the man with such force that it went through his injured arm and body, taking the top half of him clean with it. The torso spiralled through the air, painting the courtyard crimson, before hitting the floor and rolling to a stop.
No one breathed.
Toler had the uncontrollable urge to run. A claustrophobic panic gripped his body. He must get to his girls. Protect them. He fought the pain, but his body rebelled. He couldn’t get up and he slumped back, sweating and gasping for air.
Ramaask considered the bloodied blade. “Interesting,” he said.
There was a moment of stunned silence, then the magi and Association men attacked.
Toler had no choice but to remain where he lay. Light flashed from magi staffs and Association men hacked with their swords. But even though Ramaask was surrounded, he didn’t go down. He swung the sword he’d taken, hacking the men down with the ease of a farmer scything wheat. Agonised screams raked the air. Limbs sailed through the sky, trailing blood, flailing and flopping onto the flagstones with damp thuds. One of Ramaask’s long, slender rear arms whipped over the top of his head and caught one of the magi by a leg. He lifted the man from the floor and swung the body into the Association men like a club. Cries went up as it smashed into them. The colliding bodies slapping and crunching as soft and hard body parts came into contact with each other.
Toler couldn’t allow his comrades, his brothers, to die like this. He didn’t have long left, his lungs were collapsing and he would be dead soon, but he had to do something. He needed to contact the Grand Master. It was all he could do to stay conscious as he sent the message. When he’d finished, the men were already retreating. The magi had quit attacking and were using long range staff blasts to stop Ramaask advancing long enough for them to escape. Toler was aware of General Azertash in the thick of the battle, but he
was losing consciousness. He reached for his staff, but it was too far away. As he struggled against the sickness, everything spiralled and went black.
Toler woke, retching violently. He turned his head and vomited a thick black tar onto the floor. He could barely see. Everything was blurred. He could make out the palace and purple smoke still pouring from it, but that was all.
“A survivor?” came the deep voice of Ramaask.
Toler started. He managed to turn his head to see two large black feet with hooked claws beside him.
“I’ve found there to be a certain satisfaction in killing men,” Ramaask said. “It gives you a primal thrill destroying something living, and watching the life ebb from it. While you slept, I spent some time pulling the limbs from one of your comrades. He died before I got to his legs. I didn’t think man would be such a fragile creature.” He paused a moment, became silent. “Watching the life bleed from a human, however captivating, has in retrospect left me feeling hollow and unhappy. I can’t say that I shall relish killing you, either. But your death, like those of your friends, will serve a purpose, a warning for those wishing to return to this city. Return here to aid me or perish at my feet.”
Toler watched through blurry eyes as one of Ramaask’s clawed feet came off the ground and hovered over his head. He’d communicated to the magi, he’d warned them of this new threat, but ultimately he’d failed his family. Fione was strong, she would carry on without him. The girls were young enough they’d forget he was ever a part of their lives, but all of them were in danger. The entire realm was in danger. He’d unleashed a creature far worse than the despot he’d overthrown.
“Don’t do this,” Toler begged as the callused foot came down to rest on the side of his head. He clutched his bead necklace and began to weep.
“Did you manage to contact your friends?” Ramaask asked.
“I have a family,” Toler said. “They need me. Please!”
“I hope you contacted your friends. I hope you’re still broadcasting what’s happening now.”
Then the pressure came. Slight at first, and then excruciating.
Toler cried out as splintering filled his ears, and his skull caved in.